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China Joins Regional Network to Fight Animal Trafficking

Seema, a Royal Bengal tigress, reacts to the camera at the zoo in Ahmadabad, India. India's latest tiger census shows an increase in the numbers of the endangered big cat. The census counted at least 1,706 tigers in forests across the country, about 300 m

China has joined a network of Southeast Asian nations to help curb the illegal trafficking of wildlife. Regional and international law enforcement efforts to combat animal trafficking have increased amid warnings over the bleak outlook for some endangered species and calls for the arrest of the trade's leaders.

Anti-trafficking groups say China's decision to join the South East Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN WEN) boosts regional cooperation against the illegal animal trade.

China is a major destination for illegal wildlife used in local medicines and as food. Analysts say the global trade is worth several billions of dollars a year.

Kraisak Choonhavan is chairman of the anti-trafficking group, Freeland Foundation. He says China joined ASEAN WEN because of its support of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. “So finally China recognizes the CITES convention to an extent. So they will have to start suppressing trafficking of tigers, elephant parts, bear parts, will have to start changing; this culinary culture which is extremely vicious against the environment," he said.

The Freeland Foundation, which receives support from the U.S. government, has established cooperation among regional governments, local police and international police organizations such as INTERPOL.

Freeland says increased policing has led to a 10-fold increase in law enforcement actions in Asia over the past five years.

According to recent data compiled by Freeland, more than 190 law enforcement actions occurred between April and September 2010, with the recovery of 16,000 live animals, and 14 metric tons of animal parts with a black market value of $6.0 million. Police also made over 100 arrests.

But Steve Galster, a director of the Freeland Foundation, says despite the arrests gang leaders continue to evade capture. “The biggest challenge ahead of us is getting government agencies on board with the idea of arresting people with influence. Once that happens I think you will see a quick downward spiral in the poaching, trafficking and consumption of endangered species," he said.

Vietnam has been increasingly a target for traffickers. In September 2010, police in Hanoi uncovered 10 tiger skeletons, hundreds of sacks of fake gall bladder and 600 kilograms of elephant bones. They also uncovered bear skulls, ivory tusks, leopard skulls and other animal parts.

Douglas Hendrie with the Hanoi-based Education for Nature Vietnam says economic progress in Vietnam has spurred an increase in demand for wildlife for consumption. “The trend is towards Vietnam becoming a major consumer state. We still have transit trade through to China, but I would say now a good portion of it is destined for Vietnam. And particularly for some types of species like tiger, like rhino-horn from South Africa, common wildlife consumed in restaurants," he said.

Still, Hendrie says educated younger generations in Vietnam appear to be turning their backs on wildlife consumption. And he says efforts to enforce laws to protect wildlife are also encouraging.

But while some gains are being made in Asia, the illegal trade in animals is spreading to other parts of the world.

Anti-trafficking groups point to an on-going demand from countries in the Middle East for live animals, mostly as exotic pets. They say so far, traffickers there have been able to evade law enforcement officials in Asia.